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90+ groups warn US Senate of 'damaging consequences' from Kids Online Safety Act

The kids aren't alright

US legislation that aims to protect kids' online safety and data privacy will have "damaging unintended consequences for young people," according to more than 90 privacy and civil rights groups.

In a letter sent to US Senate leaders on Monday, the organizations urged lawmakers to kill the proposed Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which they warned would incentivize service providers to collect more data on children, limit access to sex education and resources for LGBTQ+ youth, and allow parents to spy on their teens.

"Older minors have their own independent rights to privacy and access to information, and not every parent-child dynamic is healthy or constructive," the groups wrote. "KOSA risks subjecting teens who are experiencing domestic violence and parental abuse to additional forms of digital surveillance and control that could prevent these vulnerable youths from reaching out for help or support."

Signatories include the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Fight for the Future, the ACLU, GLAAD, National Center for Transgender Equality and the Tor Project.

Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), introduced the legislation in February in response to media reports and subcommittee hearings on social media companies' practices that the lawmakers say put kids at risk.

"Big Tech has brazenly failed children and betrayed its trust, putting profits above safety," Blumenthal said at the time. "The Kids Online Safety Act would finally give kids and their parents the tools and safeguards they need to protect against toxic content — and hold Big Tech accountable for deeply dangerous algorithms."

KOSA would, among other things, require platforms used by children age 16 and younger to prevent the promotion of content that encourages harmful behaviors, such as self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, bullying and harassment.

It also allows minors and their parents to opt out of algorithmic recommendations using the minor's personal data, and delete the minor's account and related data. Plus, it allows parents to control their kids' privacy and account settings, and track hoiw much time is spent online.

In the final weeks of the lame-duck Congress, advocates and lawmakers have suggested adding the kids' privacy proposal to the year-end defense or spending bill to ensure it passes

In their letter opposing the bill, the organizations argue that KOSA's vague "duty of care" to prevent harms will require online services providers to employ broad content filtering to limit minors' access to certain content. "Content filtering is notoriously imprecise; filtering used by schools and libraries in response to the Children's Internet Protection Act has curtailed access to critical information such as sex education or resources for LGBTQ+ youth," according to the signatories.

The proposal would especially hurt LGBTQ+ youth, and could be weaponized by Attorneys General to censor online resources for queer and trans kids, they wrote. "At a time when books with LGBTQ+ themes are being banned from school libraries and people providing healthcare to trans children are being falsely accused of 'grooming,' KOSA would cut off another vital avenue of access to information for vulnerable youth," the letter said.

"In short, while KOSA has laudable goals, it also presents significant unintended consequences that threaten the privacy, safety, and access to information rights of young people and adults alike," it continued. 

The KOSA push comes as watchdog agencies, Congress and state lawmakers alike struggle with how to prevent online harm to minors without trampling digital privacy rights and data protections.

In addition to KOSA, the Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act, which bans marketing to minors without their consent, also faces a year-end push to make it to President Joe Biden's desk.

And in September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2273, legislation designed to protect children's online privacy by requiring websites to verify the ages of visitors. The state law was modeled after the UK's age-appropriate design code. ®

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